Raqib Shaw at the Met, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
November 4, 2008–March 1, 2009
1000 Fifth Avenue at 82 Street
New York City, 212-535-7710
Raqib Shaw draws inspiration from cultures as eclectic and colorful as his own personal background. He was born in Calcutta in 1974 and spent most of his youth in Kashmir. In 1998, he moved to London, where in 2001 he enrolled at the Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. He still resides there today. His intimate knowledge of both the Far East and West has enabled Shaw to develop a staggering visual language that references Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, and Christian art equally. But however evocative of things past, Shaw has finessed his way onto the contemporary scene with a rock n’ roll-like lust for glitter and aplomb.
His compositions, which are dense in information and heavily populated with fantastic creatures, literally shine and sparkle. Little glass beads are frequently used for decoration, while enamel and metallic paints make for slick almost reflective surfaces. These are further manipulated with a porcupine quill, adding textural outlines to individual details. These textures add an overall cloisonné effect, the same found in ancient jewelry or decorative items. This bestows a sense of craft and labor upon each work.
With Shaw’s work, these decorative and ornamental elements are crucial ingredients. Along with the shiny surfaces, they aid in masking the at times rather garish and demonic imagery and figures. To study Shaw’s work requires concentration. It is indeed a fascinating challenge to search through the mesmerizing tapestry made of countless images and vibrant colors, in order to trace any sort of narrative. Whatever stories Shaw might tell and whatever horrific creatures he might portray, they all are camouflaged by an overstimulation of the viewer’s visual senses. The excessiveness of information is severe and can be compared to 1960s psychedelic art or Persian miniatures.
Since 2006, when the Tate Gallery invited him to create works in response to their “Holbein in England” exhibition, Shaw has repeatedly explored the Northern Renaissance. Hans Holbein the Younger (ca. 1497–1543) and Hieronymous Bosch (ca. 1450–1516) have both inspired entire series of works. In Shaw’s first solo museum exhibition in New York, he continues along this path. His Absence of God series draws from different aspects of Holbein’s oeuvre, such as the latter’s Dance of Death series. Begun in 1522, it comprises 41 woodcut engravings depicting “Death” as he confronts individuals from all levels of society, and some of these works are installed at the exhibition’s entrance wall. No different from Holbein, Shaw pursues a vision of the macabre that has strong satirical overtones. He cultivates an intriguing dark sense of humor that thrives on contrasts. Nightmarish scenarios and protagonists are usually offset by arrays of lighthearted birds, butterflies and flowers. It is as if glimpses of earthly delights were employed in order to tame the beasts who rage about. A similar use of extremes can be found in a group of works on paper, inspired by Holbein’s portraits of English sitters. Confronting the viewer, each subject’s head has been replaced with that of an animalistic monster. Even though Shaw portrays these subjects with gnashing teeth and violent eyes that appear to seek nothing but blood, they are still dressed in the formal and highly ornate late-medieval costumes known from Holbein’s originals.
In Absence of God, Shaw’s subject is not eroticized violence. It is a rather poetic depiction of a world devoid of divine supervision. Here, hell has broken loose, leaving the architecture to crumble as we head towards destruction and decay. But this is in the near future. The lush beauty of creation has not vanished yet and manifests itself in the countless ornamental flowers, butterflies and gemstones. Unfolding in their prime, they form a saturated tour de force and become a giant siren singing the last song that will accompany this grotesque parade.